Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

July 29, 2021

‘The People We Keep’ and Discovering Yourself in Ithaca

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Cornell undergraduate students spend four of our most formative years in Ithaca. Ithaca is the backdrop for some of our most important developments: it is where we set the academic and professional foundations for the rest of our careers, and where we form some of the longest lasting and most impactful relationships and friendships of our lives. 

Allison Larkin’s upcoming novel, The People We Keep, follows its protagonist on a similar coming-of-age journey amongst Ithaca’s gorges, hills and waterfalls. It follows April, a teenage musician who, in 1994, leaves her hometown of Little River, a place where she feels lost and alone, for the quaint Ithaca. In Ithaca, she starts working at the cozy Cafe Decadence and meets a group of friends that make her feel, for the first time, like she belongs. The novel chronicles April’s journey to and from Ithaca and her struggle to understand the concept of home. 

I had the opportunity to read an advanced copy of The People We Keep, which will be released on August 3. I also had the privilege to interview Allison Larkin about her writing process, her connection with Ithaca and what her latest novel can tell us about the relationships we maintain.

The People We Keep is partially based on Larkin’s own experience as an Ithaca College student from 1995 to 1997 — two years that she feels were essential to her self-discovery, and two years she remembers fondly. Larkin described that “so many of the people I am in contact with on a daily basis” she had met during her time in Ithaca, such as her voice teacher and her dorm mates. “My family is in Ithaca.” Much of April’s experience with found family in Ithaca is a reflection of Larkin’s own experience of feeling at home for the first time. “I had this overwhelming feeling of Ithaca as where I started. And so I gave that voice to April because she felt the same way about it.”

Much of the interview between Allison and I was spent comparing notes on our differing experiences of attending college in Ithaca. In 1995, Cafe Decadence was a real coffee shop in Ithaca Commons, and the city itself was much smaller. The Ithaca Mall was the center of city life — Larkin described it as the place where her friends would go on weekends to “re-enter society.” We speculated on how much of this difference was due to her being a student at Ithaca College as opposed to at Cornell, but we suspected that a much bigger difference was the era in which we experienced college.

The People We Keep takes place in the 1990s, a time when people’s lives were not as easily accessible via social media and long-distance relationships were not as easy to maintain. This time period was a deliberate choice by Larkin, not only because it resembled her own experience, but because it intensifies the time friends spend together, making April’s story more compelling. People pass in and out of April’s life as she moves around, making the hellos and goodbyes more emotional and fraught. “Things felt more final and permanent when you said goodbye to somebody,” Larkin said. “And then you hope you see them again. It made it very hard to leave places.” 

People and places were intertwined with April — a girl from a small town and from a time before the internet — in a way that is no longer possible for us. Ithaca, as well as the other locations which April visits, felt like their own characters brought to life by Larkin and colored by April’s perspective. It made me see Ithaca in a different light, one unaffected by preconceptions or by other peoples’ Instagram accounts. 

Larkin explained to me that it took 12 years to form and polish The People We Keep from start to finish. Since the conception of her novel, Larkin has had a specific idea of who April would be, and she learned that it was not stubborn or unreasonable as a writer to stick to that idea. At first, April’s personality received pushback from editors, who often requested for April to be “nicer” and more of a “normal teenager.” In allowing for the final freedom to characterize April in a more unconventional way, Larkin credits the rise of the Me Too Movement and a wider discussion about the public roles of women. . “I think that the fact that we weren’t talking about all of those things lent itself to people wishing April could be nicer. And that’s not really an acceptable thing to say anymore.” 

It was because April’s story was personal to Larkin that she felt so strongly about keeping its essence the same. Larkin said that she eventually learned how to listen to critique while still retaining the vision of April and her life that she wanted. The People We Keep found a home the same way April did: by meeting people who truly understood it. “I had to keep searching for my people,” said Larkin. “This book needed caretakers that could see the soul of it.” Larkin eventually found a home with an editor and a publisher that understood April’s journey and wanted to help tell that story. 

Like Larkin, April is a creative person: a songwriter who channels her experiences into her art. In the end, that was what struck me most about this novel — The People We Keep explores the vulnerability of opening up, whether through your art or your relationships with others, and it uses a familiar location to do so. Larkin mentioned how she still visits her favorite people and places in Ithaca even now, 20 years after her time in college. Reading The People We Keep and hearing Larkin’s story leaves me hoping that one day I will do the same. 

Ayesha Chari is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].